Interview: Ruth Wilson talks BBC America's 'Luther'
How did the procedural star come to empathize with her murderous character?
In the summer of 2009, on a work trip to London, I queued up at the Donmar Warehouse starting at 6 a.m. to get same-day tickets for a well-regarded production of "Streetcar Named Desire."
As Blanche, Rachel Weisz was the big draw, but it was the production's Stella who I walked out raving about. I raved about Ruth Wilson again in AMC's "The Prisoner."
Although she was a Golden Globe nominee for her performance in the title role in 2006's "Jane Eyre," Wilson makes her biggest impression yet in "Luther," which premieres on BBC America on Sunday.
"Luther" is a police procedural built around Idris Elba, but what sets the first season apart is Wilson's Alice Morgan, a brilliant physicist and a conscience-free sociopath. The game of cat-and-mouse between Luther and Alice is what will bring viewers back to "Luther."
Over Cokes and bar nuts, I had a long and far-reaching conversation with Wilson at TCA press tour in August. The interview is lengthy, but it's one of the more in-depth conversations I've had about the acting craft, so I left it intact.
It's long, but there's great stuff here.
Click through for the full interview...
HitFix: One of the things you said on the TCA panel today was that when you're acting for TV, the camera can see you think. Last summer, I caught you in "Streetcar" and when you're doing something as emotive as Tennessee Williams on stage, you obviously don't have that luxury of acting only through thoughts. What's your comfort level with either of those extremes?
Ruth Wilson: Oh, I love them both. I've just done a play recently, just finished last Saturday, which was a stage adaptation of Ingmar Bergman's "Through a Glass Darkly," so that was another really emotional piece and I think it's very liberating to be on stage. You can emote. You can be much bigger with your emotions. On screen, it's quite hard to be that emotive. It's quite hard to watch, seeing somebody's face so contorted or upset or angry. It's difficult for the audience to watch, sometimes. I think on stage, there's the liberation of being about to move your body a lot, to really physicalize the character and that's a really lovely part of stage and the craft of stage that I love, it's that your whole body is used. When you're on camera, it's very much the face that is used. So the beauty of stage is that you can let rip actually. With film, it's much more about the individual moments and the exact thoughts. You have to do that with stage as well, but there you focus more on exactly what you're saying and why you're saying it, so it's much more, in a sense, in-depth on the reasons behind every line you say.
That's a very vague estimation of it. Of course you can do either on both. And in "Streetcar," that's a very small space, so you can get away with doing less than you would on a West End stage, which is why I quite like that space. It's intimate, so they can still see your eyes and that thought-process going through your eyes. But yeah, there's beauty in both genres and there are skills in both that you learn or develop as you do more of both.
HitFix: Is the transition hard sometimes? Or is it one muscle for one and then you turn around and flex a totally different muscle for the other?
RW: They are different muscles. Like with stage, for example, using your voice... I'm always very cautious about my voice, because it's quite deep and husky and if I have too many late nights or if I speak a lot in loud bars, my voice goes very husky. That's one of the things where, on stage, I have to be aware of it and look after it. Then with film, I'm always aware of being still, because I express naturally. You're sitting with me now. I'm very expressive. But on camera, I'm not so expressive. It's in here. It's much more subtle. So I'm much more conscious about being constrained a little bit on camera, which I haven't quite nailed. There are things that I'm still learning, but I'm very aware of what I have to do when the camera's still on me, I'm like "I'm not going to move. I'm just going to do the lines." But that will free up more. And on stage, my voice will get stronger. But it's just these areas where you have to use different elements of yourself and work on elements that are not so strong, perhaps.
HitFix: Obviously when you're acting in the theater, you have a sense of the energy that the audience is giving off, how they're reacting. When you're on camera, have you found a way to tell when you're doing it too much, not enough, etc?
RW: That's the constant battle in my head that I have on camera is, "Is that too big?" For example, I remember when I did "Small Island," I was like, "I'm being really big. I'm being really big." And then I watched it and I'm like, "I'm not big enough!" I thought, "Everyone else is being really big and I'm not big enough. Damn, I'm too subtle. How was I being too subtle? I thought I was being really big!" So you don't know. You don't know what the camera's reading. It reads the smallest things, but then sometimes you're like, "I look far too stiff in that scene. I should loosen my body up."
With this particular one, I was really worried that I was doing too much. I was like, "Oh, I'm really hamming this up." Overly hammy. Like I'm pushing it. And I kept saying to the directors, "Look. If I'm doing too much, please pull me back, because I will." And they never did. The director of the last two episodes wanted to push her down a different avenue, make her more real and open up her vulnerabilities, so I did that with him. But they never pulled me back, so I was really concerned it was going to be really hammy and big acting. And it has got elements of that, but it's fun.
I think that the two really compliment each other and they're essentially not that different. You're still analyzing a character and a person and you go through the same work on it behind the scenes. Technically they're different, but in terms of emotion and the structure of the character, it's the same thing. It's the same process. I think stage really grounds you as an actor. Like you say, you have an audience that responds to you immediately, so you learn how to work with the audience and you learn what an audience likes and what they don't like. You have to change it. You have to be very spontaneous. You have to be in the moment all the time. It's the same with acting on camera, though, so it's a really good skill and I think it really helps you as an actor and it gives you confidence, I think.
HitFix: So a part like this, it has to almost be facing your fears of screen acting, because if you have a fear of going too big, this has to be a part that's right on the edge at all times.
RW: That's what I mean. I did "Streetcar" right before this and every time I do a play, I come out feeling more confident in my abilities as an actor. So when this came along, I thought this was a brilliant part and I could have a lot of fun with this and it was about having fun with it. So I let myself do that. That's why this was really liberating for me. Lots of parts, I have fun with, but they tend to be quite emotionally pained parts, in a way. They're different characters, but whether it's Stella or Jane or Stella or Karen, they're women who have suffered some sort of torment or something. So this is quite nice. Alice has suffered trauma, but she's managed to completely suppress it or deny it or push it down and create something else out of it, create a character who I thought was quite fun. It was a very liberating experience and something that I really enjoyed.
HitFix: How much did you work up a backstory for Alice and what made her?
RW: Quite a bit, although weirdly I didn't feel like it needed it so much. Like I think it's all in there, in the script these things are teased out. Weirdly, I didn't take it too seriously. Like I said, I decided I wanted to have fun with it. I feel really bad saying that. I should be saying I went Method, but I didn't. I though, "I can't, really." I don't think the script provided me with enough material for me to do that. If it was a documentary-style drama about a girl who was a psychopath, I would have done that. I would have done that work. And I did a lot of work. I went and watched documentaries about psychopaths and I watched lots of films and I kind of tried to work out her logic and her rationale, but I didn't really see her as someone who was tortured. I didn't see her as someone who was going on about what she's been through. She never talks about it. She's gone too far. I feel like she's on the other side. She says to Luther in the last episode, she says, "You're on the other side of it now. You've got way beyond it."
What I'm trying to say is that the backstory doesn't particularly aid. I mean, I don't know anything about physics. I looked up everything that was in the script, like what dark matter was, and tried to work out what her frame of reference was. She comes from a physicist's point of view, so she sees everything as a physicist. She sees people as matter, as balls of energy and conflicting energy. So emotions, they're only energy, you don't have to put anything else onto them. You don't have to have a conscious about them, because they're simply energy flowing through your body. So therefore, guilt or anger or whatever is something that you don't have to worry too much about it, because it's just energy. If you kill someone, you don't have to feel anything about it, because it's just energy. That's all we are. We're matter. We're nothing else. We're just balls of matter. I think that's an interesting concept and I studied through the philosophy of that for a bit. There's a writer named John Gray, he's a philosopher and he wrote a book called "Straw Dogs" and I'd read it previously to this, but I re-read it. It's was about humans as animals and how simply we're an aggressive form of species on the planet and we're nothing more or less than that. We're like any animal and we will be destroyed before we can destroy the Earth. So the same theory that he takes on about that, she takes on about us being matter. We're die and we'll disappear and we'll be nothing, so there's no point in spending all of your life freaking out and giving yourself guilt trips or having a conscience about things. That's a very simplified view about what she felt, but in that way, she believed she was above everyone else and she had superiority to everyone else, because she could see the world more clearly than everyone else and therefore could manipulate them and their emotions because they think emotions matter and they don't. So she can have fun doing that. In a way, once I got to that point of thinking, once I researched that much and figured out what was making her tick, then you can just have fun, because you understand where her enjoyment of murder comes from and where her enjoyment of toying with people and manipulating people comes from.
HitFix: She's having fun with it, so you can have fun with it?
RW: Yeah. I just thought she was having fun. I didn't think she was at home stressing about anything. She doesn't. She's at home going, "What can I do now? He's really fascinating and I want to get inside his head." I think she's having fun, but in a another way, she does start feeling emotions. He does unlock something in her later in the series and she does start to question some of the stuff herself, but she never lets on too much.
HitFix: I've talked to actors who've played evil characters and they go through a whole thing about how you can't view them as the bad guys. You can't view them as evil. You have to understand them as people. But she's pretty clearly the villain her, but did you still have to try empathizing or sympathizing?
RW: My empathy comes from her rationale of what she's doing and, in a way, I totally understand that logic. People have different frames of reference, whether you're an actor or you're a doctor or you're anything else, if you're trained to think in a certain way, you'll view anyone you meet in that particular way. As an actor, I'll always talk to people and I'll be seeing what they're about, why they move in a certain way, why they talk in a certain way, I'll be trying to work out the person. A doctor will probably be trying to work out what's wrong with you. It's what you automatically do. So in her frame of reference, she's a physicist and just sees things as matter and figures out how to manipulate it. So it's totally how your brain functions and how you view the world. And your view of the world then completely informs how act within it, so I did empathize with her. Totally. I could understand why she felt like that. Her frame of reference was not emotionally connected. It was about physics and the nature of people and I could empathize with that. It's not about the killing. She doesn't feel anything about the killing. It's about how she views the whole world and her view of life. She's clearly a villain, but I just see her as having fun doing what she did. That's why I found it quite liberating to do. It's fiction, after all. It's clearly fiction. Like I said, if I was doing a documentary about a girl who's a psychopath, it would be not the same, I'd do different research. This is entertainment and interesting entertainment and quite stylized entertainment, so I think it demanded that approach, rather than going all Method.
HitFix: If you'd gone the Method route, do you think that would have thrown off or miscalibrating the entertainment value of the cat and mouse game?
RW: Yeah. I don't think it would have worked. And the language wouldn't have allowed it. What Neil Cross wrote is a character who speaks like Hannibal Lecter. There are very few psychopaths you'd meet who speak like that. I watched documentaries and the scariest thing about psychopaths is that they're very real and you wouldn't notice them in the street, wouldn't have any idea that they're psychopaths. And most psychopaths don't kill. They're not serial killers. They're people who have no empathy, who don't exist in the same emotional world we do. There are many of them about and they exist often in very high-powered jobs. Banking, doctors, ministers of government, it's narcissistic, intense narcissism. So people like that do exist, but this is a heightened version and it's slightly comic book.
I was thinking that this is very Batman. Luther's Batman, [Warren Brown's] Ripley's Robin, I'm Catwoman. Which I quite like. The killer in Episode 3 is like the Joker. The killer in Episode 4 is like Penguin. If you put us in leather, we'd all be like a comic book. That's what makes it so appealing. It's gruesome, but with a tad of piss-take, or a tad of humor, so you don't have to take it too seriously.
HitFix: But did you have times you took things too far in the comic-y direction? Where you had too much of a wicked smile or too much of a raised eyebrow?
RW: It's funny, because we had different directors and then they all encouraged different things. So the first director, with Brian [Kirk], we were forming that character and developing it. As the show goes along, you see her warm, but in the middle two, I was concerned about there not being enough interest in her, that I was going to lose interest in her and the audience was going to lose interest in her. The material wasn't very exposing of her. And the director agreed and we decided to push the boundaries on whether she's in Luther's imagination or not. You don't see it on the screen, but we did it and we filmed it. There was a scene in the lab where I'm circling him and telling him a joke and we shot it a few times with me doing it all throughout and then half-way through walking away and hiding, so half of it was Idris talking to himself. So they were going to play with the idea of me being in and out of his mind.
HitFix: Even if that wasn't left in, I kind of love that idea or that interpretation.
RW: That's what we pushed to explore. One of the things we did with that is that originally, the lab scenes were supposed to be her teach in a university and I didn't want her to be seen in real life, particularly. I felt like the way we'd created this character was a bit extreme, a bit more extreme than usual and therefore to put her in real life, you'd see the contrast and it wouldn't work. I wanted people to question, "How does she exist in the real world?" Because she's not real, really. She's slightly otherworldly. I think it's quite nice that she's kept as an enigma, quite mysterious. We played around with the image of her as well. The obvious choice was to go scrubbed-clean and slightly geeky, but I thought that she's actually somebody you do a double take at on the street because she's so striking. She wants to be seen. She wants to be acknowledged. But then you'd never see her again. It's that kind of person who's almost untouchable and quite scary and cold and Ice Queen-ish. And she uses her femininity. She uses her sexuality. She toys with men and with women. She actually constructs an image that she thinks will attract women and men and then she can manipulate them. And we based that look on the 1940s femme fatales. She's got the hair and the pencil skirts, like Lana Turner.
HitFix: You mention Hannibal Lecter earlier, but the gender roles are obviously reversed here. What do you think that does to that cat-and-mouse archetype?
RW: Well, I think she plays lots of different roles with him. I think she plays teacher, wife, mother, lover. I think it's a really interesting dynamic, because that's what attracts me to things in the first place, the fact that it was Hannibal Lecter, but with the roles reversed. I think it puts the focus on the vulnerabilities of man, or of men, as opposed to the strength of women. It gives you a different insight into that dynamic. Luther is surrounded by three women and Neil Cross based it on the [archetype] of the three women, the virgin, the mother and the hag. They bring different things. The virgin is the sexual one. The mother is the nurturing one. And then the hag is the wisdom, the teacher. He's got those three women in this, but I think Alice plays different roles at different times, so I think that having that dynamic and the role-playing aspect, it makes Luther more vulnerable and it makes Alice stronger. It shifts it and makes it more fascinating.
Also, the sexual chemistry is there immediately. With Hannibal Lecter and Clarice, the age difference is quite huge. I still sometimes wonder if this might have been more interestingly played if [Alice] was more scrubbed clean and younger looking and then it could go down a weirder route, but I think that in some ways, she's the light relief in the piece. You need that, because it can be quite a dark show. That's why people like her so much. People go, "Oh yeah! It's the Alice bit again!"
HitFix: And you've already done a number of iconic roles or appeared in iconic properties. Like "Jane Eyre," you're going to be compared to every Jane Eyre that's ever been. With "Streetcar," you're going to be compared to every Stella. How fulfilling is it to get to do a original, modern character where it's all you?
RW: Oh, it's lovely. To be able to make a mark on a role that's unique and new, I think that's really exciting. It's also hard, because with something like "Jane Eyre," you've got a book to base something on. That does all of the work for you, in a way. It's all there. Something like Alice, you've got to create that yourself and that's really exciting. There was no image of her. Neil hadn't written down what he thought she might look like. So, like I said, I toyed with the makeup artist and with James, the costumer, we collaborated quite carefully on how we were going to create this role. Lots of people had joined the project because of that role. The role really stood out as something quite different and unique, so it was in all of our interests to create something that was really fun and strange. So we went down that route, starting off sort of geeky and then shifting to that 1940s femme fatale look. And we all loved it... Even the color of my hair dictated a lot of the palette of the piece, as well. If you watch it, it's lots of browns and dulled down colors and then you've got flashes of red everywhere and that comes from my hair, where we went a very bold red, and my lips are really popped out with the red.
HitFix: How much are you as an actress inspired or governed by those external factors, the color of your hair or the shade of your lipstick?
RW: A lot. If you look at my work, it's a lot of very different looks. I've got quite a versatile face. It can accommodate lots of different styles and periods, so I use that to my advantage by playing with looks and colors and images. It's fun to do, because then you do transform completely. The same makeup artist did this as did "Jane Eyre."
HitFix: So she knows how to work with you.
RW: Yeah. She knows how to work my face. But she loved the fact that we were doing something completely different. I think it's becoming more and more interesting for me to do that. I've only done one piece where I look more like myself. There's only one thing that I've done that's more resonant of me. I do like transforming completely. It really helps as an actor and for the piece as well.
HitFix: American TV has become a very receptive place for International actors in recent years and it seems to be a place people want to work. Do you have any aspirations along those lines?
RW: Yeah. I focus on film because long-running stuff I find quite daunting, because the idea of being the same character for seven years sort of scares me. But the writing is fantastic in this country and that's why people come to it. The writing is superb. From "The Wire" to "West Wing" to "Sopranos" to "Dexter," the writing, the storylines and the ideas are brilliant, so that's why people want to come, because the work is of the highest standard.
HitFix: I know you can do a Southern accent, but do you have your generic, Mid-Atlantic American accent all prepared?
RW: I don't like those generic accents, because no one speaks like that, actually, do they? You've got to be specific. I think it's pointless having a generic Mid-Atlantic accent. What is it? I don't get it. It comes from nowhere. You've got to be specific. If I was to do a role, I'd have to know where, in America, the character was from. Nobody talks like that! It's very hard for me to work on a non-specific accent.
"Luther" premieres on BBC America on Sunday, Oct. 17.